Courtney Pine: ’80s Jazz Messenger

courtney pine

Courtney in concert, 1987

Gifted saxophonist Courtney Pine‘s career is one of British jazz’s great success stories.

Starting out in the early ‘80s as a sideman with reggae act Clint Eastwood and General Saint and various Britfunk bands, he became disillusioned with the outlawing of jazz as a respected, popular music in the climate of the early ’80s London music scene.

As he memorably put it in the superb BBC TV documentary Jazz Britannia, ‘I would add different notes in the scale the way Sonny Rollins did and people would say, “No man, we don’t want that.” They were saying to me, “If you’re black and you want to play jazz in this country, you’d better go and live somewhere else!”’

But all that changed when he caught US trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on TV one afternoon. Marsalis’s professionalism and dynamism were a revelation to Pine (not to mention his youthfulness); if Marsalis could bring jazz to a wide audience, he could too.

A period of intense woodshedding paid off, and soon he was guesting with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and The Charlie Watts Big Band, blowing all over the Angel Heart soundtrack and blowing people away with his solos in Gary Crosby’s groundbreaking Jazz Warriors and Jazz Jamaica groups.

Island Records came calling, and his 1986 hard-bop-based debut Journey To The Urge Within made the Top 40 in the UK (scraping in at 39 on 25th October ’86!), an almost-unheard-of state of affairs for a jazz album. This web editor fondly remembers the day when, on opening the NME, unexpectedly found Pine’s debut and Miles Davis‘s Tutu sharing the chart.

courtney pine

Courtney spearheaded a huge resurgence of interest in jazz in the mid-to-late ’80s. But despite his huge success and admirable teaching work, he’s still somewhat of an anomaly on the scene, a barnstorming soloist with a lot of technique and a huge sound, one of the few British saxists who can give US brain-blowers like James Carter and David Murray a run for their money.

With Courtney’s playing and talent, it’s a question of context. His musical vision has certainly diversified since the mid-’80s, taking in elements of reggae, drum and bass, UK garage and jazz/funk, though the last few years have seen him refocus on mainly acoustic formats.

His fine 2011 album ‘Europa‘ was his first all-bass clarinet record and it was an absolute blast. He investigated calpyso forms on the 2012 House Of Legends set and returned to the bass clarinet for his beautiful current album Song (The Ballad Book).

Courtney is still a prolific live performer too, check out his website for details of all upcoming gigs. More power to his elbow.

Robben Ford: Talk To Your Daughter

robben fordWarner Bros, released 1988

Bought: Virgin Megastore Oxford Street 1991?

7/10

Robben is surely guaranteed a place in the pantheon of modern blues guitar greats, and, like his contemporary and good buddy Larry Carlton, he makes guitar playing sound ridiculously easy however complicated the chord changes.

Fagen and Becker had been told about Robben’s prodigious soloing ability over changes, hiring him to play the break on Steely Dan’s altered blues ‘Peg’ in 1977, but he ended up on the cutting room floor (they famously went through six other guitarists before Jay Graydon smashed it at the eleventh hour).

But sometimes Ford’s good looks, cheerful stage persona and sweet sound can obscure his more extreme guitar statements; fusion drum monster Kirk Covington somewhat disparagingly called Robben’s style of music ‘happy blues’ in a recent interview with Drumhead magazine (admittedly after a failed audition for Robben’s band!).

miles robben ford

Robben cut his teeth with the likes of George Harrison, Joni Mitchell and Jimmy Witherspoon, but started off the 1980s playing beautifully at the Montreux Jazz Festival with David Sanborn, Randy Crawford, Al Jarreau et al, contributing three of my favourite ever guitar solos to the Casino Lights live document of that gig.

Then, in 1986, the dream sideman gig materialised: he replaced Mike Stern in Miles Davis’s band, gaining a new confidence in his abilities and a renewed love for the blues.

Apparently Miles believed he’d found his perfect guitar player. But Robben didn’t stay long – he left Miles to make his second solo album Talk To Your Daughter for Warner Bros in 1987.

It’s funny to think of Robben playing guitar with Miles just before this recording because sometimes his music could use a bit of Miles’s obliqueness and use of space.

Robben’s voice might not be to everyone’s tastes either, firmly in the Jackson Browne/Michael Franks school, but his guitar solos are always engaging and risk-taking, and a stellar band featuring monster drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Roscoe Beck and Yellowjackets keyboardist Russell Ferrante makes the music breathe. The album sounds like it was recorded live in the studio too, a big plus especially in the over-produced late-’80s.

The gospel-tinged ‘Revelation’ is worth the price of the album alone, possibly Robben’s finest recorded work to date and the only instrumental here. Robben’s take on ‘Ain’t Got Nothing But The Blues’, co-written by Duke Ellington and best-known as a Mose Allison number, is also superb, a feast of jazz chords and tasteful band accompaniment.

Down-and-dirty blues it ain’t, but Talk To Your Daughter definitely brought something fresh to the party. Other modern guitar greats Scott Henderson, Gary Moore, Frank Gambale and Larry Carlton were listening; within a few years, they’d all reacquaint themselves with the blues in a big way too.

David Bowie’s Stonehenge: The Glass Spider Debacle

David-Bowies-glass-spiderI’m generally a big ’80s Bowie apologist but sometimes even I have to say: What the hell was he thinking?

I was a 12-year-old pop fan when Let’s Dance hit, perfectly placed to love it and its usually-maligned follow-up Tonight. I enjoyed almost everything Bowie did in ’85 and ’86 too, from ‘Dancing In The Street’ and ‘This Is Not America’ to ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘When The Wind Blows’.

But 1987 is another story altogether. Even as a 15-year-old, right from the start I sniffed something dodgy about Never Let Me Down and its accompanying Glass Spider tour. I’ve found a couple of things to love about the former in the years since (especially the great Lennonesque title track) but can’t find anything good about the latter. And the entire debacle is right there in all its glory on YouTube, of course.

Bowie at the Never Let Me Down/Glass Spider Tour London press conference, 20th March 1987

Bowie at the Never Let Me Down/Glass Spider Tour London press conference, 20th March 1987

The show was certainly ahead of its time with its tightly-choreographed, narrative vignettes – just look at Prince’s Lovesexy and Madonna’s Blond Ambition tours for evidence of its influence.

If you’re a big Bowie fan, the opening moments are amusing if a bit tasteless – guitarist Carlos Alomar attempts some ill-advised, sub-Van Halen guitar pyrotechnics while an offstage David repeatedly screams ‘Shut up!’ in ‘It’s No Game’ style.

There then follows an outrageous opening medley featuring a bizarre, lip-synched version of ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ followed by a hilariously hammy spoken word section by Bowie which closely resembles Nigel Tufnel in Stonehenge mode. Is he taking the piss? Usually this question doesn’t cross your mind with Bowie, no matter how much he ‘tests’ his audience, but it does here.

Then there’s a brutal depiction of gang warfare juxtaposed with Bowie’s cheesy, reassuring grin, a typically unsettling mixture of menace and child-like innocence. But he seems generally uncomfortable throughout the show. His attempts at audience interaction are always awkward and nothing links the songs; almost all end in blackout before another lumbers into view.

david-bowieThe Glass Spider tour also features surely the most dated-sounding band in Bowie’s history, with huge, triggered drums, rambling synth solos, garish, unpleasant DX7 factory sounds and lots of cod-raunchy guitar from Alomar and Peter Frampton. This is a far too ‘muso’ bunch of musicians for Bowie. The fanfare of synth horns at the end of ‘Fame’ is just unforgivable.

‘Heroes’ is stripped of all romance and majesty and becomes a jaunty throwaway. ‘Sons of the Silent Age’ coasts in on a nicely Middle Eastern-ish vibe, a huge relief from the bombast, but is nearly ruined by Frampton’s nasal lead vocals. None of these versions come close to being definitive. Also the fact that Bowie only plays four tracks from the Never Let Me Down album just a few months after its release pretty much goes to show what he thinks of it.

Bowie famously burnt the huge stage set in a field at the end of the tour. He must have wished he’d never set eyes on it. But within a year, he’d hooked up with avant-metal guitarist Reeves Gabrels, started work with influential dance troupe La La La Human Steps and embarked on some very interesting new musical adventures.

Marcus Miller: Suddenly

marcus millerWarner Bros, released June 1983

Bought: HMV Richmond 1989?

7/10

I first became aware of Marcus when I saw him playing bass with Miles Davis at the trumpeter’s Hammersmith Odeon ‘comeback’ gig in ’82.

He quickly became one of my bass heroes a few years later when I was bowled over by his contribution to Miles’ Star People album.

Marcus’s name came up again recently when I was talking to someone about great multi-instrumentalists. In the soul/funk/R’n’B world, obviously there’s Stevie, Prince, Lewis Taylor and Sly.

Marcus’s 1983 debut Suddenly almost puts him up there with that esteemed company too, though in the final analysis it suffers from a lack of top-quality material.

Marcus has put it on record that he was first inspired to play music by Michael Jackson and Stevie, and Suddenly was his first attempt to enter their world of quality soul/funk/R’n’B songwriting.

He’d certainly paid his dues for Warner Bros Records by 1983, producing, composing and/or playing bass with David Sanborn, Donald Fagen, Joe Sample, Roberta Flack, Grover Washington Jr. and Claus Ogerman, so a Warners solo debut was always on the cards.

Marcus-Miller

You can hear elements of ZAPP, Gap Band, The Time and Cameo on Suddenly, and if Marcus doesn’t quite establish himself as a genuine ’80s funk contender, there are a myriad of great grooves and musical touches to enjoy.

He pretty much plays all instruments, getting in selected guests (drummers Harvey Mason and Yogi Horton, Vandross, Sanborn, Mike Mainieri) to add spice here and there.

By his own admission, Marcus is not a great singer, his voice rather light and uncertain, but his bass and keyboard playing, songwriting and arranging really save the day.

‘Lovin’ You’ is uplifting pop/funk with a classic bassline, while ‘Just What I Needed’ features some great Richard Tee-like, gospel-tinged piano from Marcus. And his piccolo bass solo on ‘Much Too Much’ had me checking the sleevenotes in vain for the presence of late great guitarist Eric Gale.

‘Just For You’ was previously recorded by David Sanborn on the classic Voyeur album, but here it gets a nice new vocal treatment.

It’s telling though that the closing instrumental ‘Could It Be You’ is by far the most successful track, featuring Miller’s fabulous fretless bass solo. It was later covered excellently by Dizzy Gillespie on his 1984 Closer To The Source album.

Dire Straits: Brothers In Arms 30 Years Old Today

dire-straitsVertigo/Warner Bros Records, released 13th May 1985

Recorded: AIR Studios, Montserrat

Produced by Neil Dorfsman and Mark Knopfler

Appox. UK Album Sales: 3,086,000

UK Album Chart Position: 1

Weeks On UK Album Chart: 195

Singles Released (and UK Chart Positions):

Walk Of Life (2)
Money For Nothing (4)
Brothers In Arms (16)
So Far Away (20)
Your Latest Trick (26)

Whilst enjoying Mark Knopfler’s considerable guitar skills and knack for writing cinematic ballads (‘Romeo And Juliet’ and ‘Private Investigations’ would probably make my top 20 songs of the ’80s), Dire Straits’ mega success has generally puzzled me.

Knopfler always seemed a Bob Dylan/Randy Newman/Donald Fagen kind of guy – subtle, intelligent and wry/wary – but Straits’ mostly meat-and-potatoes rock music told another story.

But Brothers In Arms hit at exactly the right time on its release in 1985; its digital sheen, beautifully-crafted songs, tasty drumming (Omar Hakim, except on ‘Walk Of Life’ and ‘Money For Nothing’) and mastery of various styles (ZZ Top-style boogie, roots rock, jazzy pop) created an ’80s perfect storm. It’s so much part of the furniture that it’s almost beyond criticism.

Mark Knopfler at Live Aid, 13th July 1985

Mark Knopfler at Live Aid, 13th July 1985

Knopfler’s laidback, post-Dylan vocals are a great antidote to all those oversingers of the ’80s (and right up to the present day).

On ‘So Far Away’ and ‘Walk Of Life’, his pitching is not perfect and his phrasing throwaway, but the overall effect is pleasing possibly because it’s such a contrast to the super-slick production and playing.

And he shows himself again to be a brilliant ballad writer – ‘Your Latest Trick’ carries on from where ‘Private Dancer’ and ‘Private Investigations’ left off, a noirish classic featuring a famous sax break by Michael Brecker just as memorable as ‘Careless Whisper’ (for better or worse!).

‘Why Worry’ and the title track (apparently Knopfler’s response to the Falklands War) are timeless epics. I found myself unexpectedly very moved listening again to the latter the other day. In fact, I was surprised how generally downbeat the album was, not having heard it for a good few years.

Brothers In Arms outsold both Michael Jackson releases (Bad and Thriller) to be the UK’s best-selling non-greatest hits album of the ’80s, spending 14 weeks at number one. Surely a big reason for its success was that it was heavily promoted as a digital recording and as such was perfectly suited to the new CD format.

The fact that it was the ‘test CD of choice’ for yuppies on the lookout for new hi-fi equipment must have been a delicious irony for Knopfler and Straits manager Ed Bicknell, given the lyrics to ‘Money For Nothing’. There were even rumours that at the time other artists were struggling to get their albums pressed onto CD due to the overwhelming demand for Brothers In Arms.

Happy birthday, chaps.

China Crisis’s Flaunt The Imperfection: 30 Years Old Today

china crisis

Virgin Records, released 11th May 1985

Bought: Our Price Putney 1988?

8/10

In the UK, China Crisis have always had what you might call an image problem – they’ve never quite been able to shake off an almost imperceptible naffness.

Is it because of their name? Because their first hit was the extremely wimpy ‘Christian’? Because they were neither doomy enough for the post-punk crowd nor cosmopolitan enough for the New Romantics?

Or maybe because they had the dubious honour of being playlisted by Alan Partridge? (Actually, they were played by Partridge’s nemesis Dave Clifton, Ed.)

Steely Dan co-conspirator Walter Becker didn’t think they were too shabby though, apparently requesting a meeting with the Liverpudlians after he heard the nuclear-themed ‘Papua’ from their second album, 1983’s Working With Fire And Steel. He was intrigued by their obtuse lyrics, they liked the cut of his jib and apparently got on like a house on fire.

Becker signed on as producer and was summoned to Parkgate Studios near Battle, Sussex, to begin work on Flaunt The Imperfection which would turn out to be CC’s biggest success to date. Flaunt reached 9 in the album chart and stayed in the UK top 100 for 22 weeks.

China Crisis and Walter Becker, Parkgate Studios, 1985

China Crisis and Walter Becker, Parkgate Studios, 1985

With the steady hand of legendary Stones/Sly/Hendrix engineer Phill Brown onboard too, the album featured two infectious top 20 UK hits, ‘Black Man Ray’ and ‘Wake Up (King In A Catholic Style)’.

Well worth checking out too is the ‘Black Man Ray’ B-side ‘Animalistic’ which shows that the lads were also flirting with a variation on Britfunk in their spare time.

Apart from the singles, there are a host of other treats on this album, not least the drumming of the late Kevin Wilkinson. He was a big drumming hero in my teenage years. He’s very close to a British Jeff Porcaro or Carlos Vega, a tasteful groovemaster with a few chops too.

Gazza Johnson’s basslines are catchy and memorable and the songwriting is solid throughout, only ‘Wall Of God’ and ‘Blue Sea’ lacking strong choruses.

Then there’s Becker’s top-draw production. He ‘Fagenizes’ Gary Daly’s excellent vocals (usually double-tracked with a touch of delay) and shows off his arranging skills with subtle synth/guitar layering and brooding horns.

In particular, ‘Strength Of Character’, ‘You Did Cut Me’, ‘Bigger The Punch I’m Feeling’ and ‘Gift Of Freedom’ bear his fingerprints, the latter featuring some Gil Evans-esque woodwinds.

China Crisis followed up Flaunt with 1986’s What Price Paradise, a massive misfire wherein producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley inexplicably tried to turn them into Madness (If I remember rightly, the Q review of the album ended with the phrase ‘File under: Victim Of A Cruel Medical Experiment’!). But the band reunited with Walter Becker on the excellent Diary Of A Hollow Horse four years later.

Frank Zappa v Corporate America: The PMRC 30 Years On

FZ at the 'Porn Rock' Senate Hearing, 19th September 1985

Zappa at the ‘Porn Rock’ US Senate Hearing, 19th September 1985

Coinciding with the huge success of artists like Prince, Madonna, Sheena Easton, RATT, AC/DC, Def Leppard and Motley Crue in the US, the Parents Music Resource Center or PMRC was formed in 1985 by Tipper Gore, wife of Senator and later Vice President Al Gore; Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker; Pam Howar, wife of Washington realtor Raymond Howar; and Sally Nevius, wife of former Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius.

They proposed that albums carry a rating system and wanted certain songs – the so-called Filthy Fifteen – to be censored. Frank disagreed vehemently with the PMRC (despite not appearing in the Filthy Fifteen list) and appeared on US TV to argue his case with a journalist and…Donny Osmond. With memorable results. He also included segments of the Senate hearing on his spooky track ‘Porn Wars‘ from the album Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention.

He also spent a lot of the mid-’80s fending off questions from lazy journalists about his ’60s ‘hero of the counterculture’ status. The fact is he was still making some outrageous, important music in the ’80s, but the mainstream media was more interested in asking him about The Mothers and Jimi Hendrix.

This fascinating, mostly uncomfortable interview shows that you’ve gotta do your research if you want to speak to FZ (he’s right up there with Keith Jarrett in this regard), and also you might find that he’ll mention ’embarrassing’ truths about your corporation and the music business in general. He’s much missed.

Classic Prog’s Last Hurrah: It Bites’ Once Around The World

it bitesVirgin Records, released May 1988

Bought: Our Price Hammersmith 1988

9/10

Everyone has their favourite summer music and Once Around The World is an album I always turn to at this time of year.

It’s a feast of resplendent chord changes, audacious song structures, good grooves, blistering lead guitar lines and uplifting, unusual melodies.

As a music-mad 15-year-old, this was the album I was really waiting for. I had recently become slightly obsessed by their debut The Big Lad In The Windmill and couldn’t wait to hear what the talented Cumbrian four-piece would come up with next.

For some reason, I didn’t buy OATW on its first day of release, but my schoolmate Jem Godfrey did. I would badger him for details in the playground. Me: ‘Are there any instrumentals on it?’ Jem: ‘No.’ Me: ‘What’s it like then?’ Jem: ‘It’s bloody brilliant, just get it!’

In 1988, the world didn’t need a dose of beautifully-recorded, full-on prog lunacy, but they got it anyway and the UK music scene was all the better for it.

There were murmurs of a ‘prog revival’ at the time but It Bites (and to a certain extent Marillion) were streets ahead of the pack because they blended superb musicianship with great hooks and catchy songs.

Hats off to Richard Branson and Virgin for throwing some money at this album because it turned out to be classic prog’s last hurrah.

Mainly recorded at The Manor in Oxfordshire (where rumour has it singer/guitarist Francis Dunnery gained access to Richard Branson’s bountiful wine cellar with disastrous consequences…), OATW is essentially one side of beautifully-produced pop/rock songs (mainly helmed by Virgin prog survivor Steve Hillage), and another of completely brilliant, barmy prog/pop pieces.

The Manor

‘Midnight’ and ‘Kiss Like Judas’ are lean, mean, well-crafted pop/rock songs with good hooks and meaty grooves, but both just missed the UK Top 40.

‘Plastic Dreamer’ fits an unbelievable amount of material into its four minutes, including a vocal harmony section that would make Roy Thomas Baker drool, a stunning guitar solo from Dunnery, some spooky Alice In Wonderland atmospherics and preposterous lyrics (very much inspired by Peter Gabriel’s Genesis output). They repeat the trick on ‘Hunting The Whale’ and make good use of the Manor swimming pool in the process.

The 14-minute title track, whilst owing a few licks and lyric ideas to Genesis’s ‘Supper’s Ready’, is nevertheless astoundingly ambitious and brilliantly realised considering it was recorded in the same year as Kylie’s ‘I Should Be So Lucky’.

(There are other nods to early Genesis throughout the album: the last few minutes of ‘Old Man And The Angel’ brilliantly revisits the rhythm games of ‘The Battle Of Epping Forest’; the main hook of ‘Hunting The Whale’ is very similar to Steve Hackett’s central riff in ‘Dancing With The Moonlit Knight’; and the middle-eight of ‘Midnight’ uses Tony Banks’ opening chords to ‘Watcher Of The Skies’.)

They could play all this stuff live too, and with great elan (they played the whole of OATW at the much-missed London Astoria circa May 1988, and I also caught them a few months before that at Brunel University). Their range and ability was simply stunning.

John Beck’s keyboard textures have possibly dated a bit in comparison with what, say, Trevor Horn and David Sylvian were doing with synths at the time (though his voicings and arrangement ideas are always inventive), but people often forget what an amazing rhythm section (Dick Nolan on bass, Bob Dalton on drums) It Bites had.

There’s a ‘swing’ there that suggests that they were always influenced by much more than just progressive rock, and Dunnery’s guitar playing and vocals have incredible bite. Here’s some great footage of them recording the title track:

Though It Bites were turning into a very popular live draw throughout Europe, the album stalled at #43 in the UK – a big surprise and disappointment to the band. The lads’ music subsequently took a heavier direction, but OATW is the standout in their short but excellent career, showing off a brilliant band at its peak. Gratifyingly, the album is gaining fans as the years go by.